Philippine firms flog ‘Brand Pope’ amid papal visit

By Joel Guinto  /  AFP, MANILA

Sun, Jan 18, 2015 - Page 14

Pope Francis says he has come to the Philippines to help the poor, but the country’s biggest businesses and multinationals are cashing in on his visit with a not-so-subtle hijacking of the pontiff’s image.

Francis is the most trusted figure for many in the Philippines, where 80 percent of the 100 million-strong populace are Catholic, and this week’s trip has generated a marketing frenzy for “Brand Pope.”

Images of a smiling Francis are splashed on towering billboards and full-page newspaper advertisements, stamped with the logos of McDonald’s Corp, Pepsi Co, Hyundai Motor Co and myriad big local companies.

Gerald Bautista, a marketing strategist for 20 years who runs his own consulting firm in Manila, said that putting the pope and a brand together has a hypnotic effect on consumers in the Philippines.

“He has no negative attributes [and] gives 100 percent benefits in terms of credibility and integrity,” Bautista said. “They [consumers] would subliminally think that the brand is good. Subliminally, it influences their choice when they go to a supermarket.”

Local luxury department store Rustan’s rolled out a two-page spread on the day of his arrival on Thursday, with its logo on the shoulder of the 78-year-old pontiff.

A yellow ribbon, a symbol of allegiance to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and his late mother, Corazon Aquino — a former president who is an icon of democracy in the country — was also pinned on the pope’s collar.

The yellow ribbon appeared to be digitally manipulated, with a presidential spokeswoman telling reporters that she was not aware the pope had worn the pin. Next to the pope were photos of a spread of ornate jewelery with the pontiff’s image for sale, including a champagne pearl bracelet. The advertisement also reminded readers that a former ambassador to the Vatican owned Rustan’s, masquerading its promotion as a “welcome” message to the pope.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which is organizing the pope’s five-day trip, said it was unfazed with Fancis’ image being used for commerce.

Asked if it was proper to profit from the pontiff’s image, conference spokesman Bishop Mylo Vergara said the decision to do so was “really up to” the businesses involved.

The conference has signed on some of the Philippines’ biggest companies as official sponsors for the tour, allowing them to place their brands on welcome banners erected throughout Manila.

However, Andrea Tornielli, coordinator for the Web site Vatican Insider in Rome, said that Francis would frown upon blatant usage of his likeness to sell products.

“The reality is that the pope loves the poor so much; it would be much better that the money used for advertising be given to the poor,” Tornielli said.

One of the official sponsors of the papal visit is Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co, the nation’s biggest telecom, which is owned by business titan Manuel Pangilinan.

Company spokesman Ramon Isberto said the telecom’s motives for sponsorship are altruistic, adding that it is providing free phone and Internet infrastructure so Filipinos could share information about the pope.

“This is not a money-making event for us ... our main effort is to help every Filipino experience the Pope,” Isberto said.

Meanwhile, small business owners are also enjoying a surge in sales out of the papal visit, as they flood sidewalks and malls with a dizzying array of themed souvenir merchandise.

Philippine bishops did not put out guidelines on the use of Francis’ image for merchandising to give the poor a chance to make money, said Father Rufino Sescon of the organizing committee.

“[And] if we regulate, it might look like we’re the ones trying to make money off the pope,” he said.

Josie Rudavites, who runs a tiny stall outside one of Manila’s most popular churches, said daily sales had jumped 10-fold to 3,000 Philippine pesos (US$67) since she started selling badges and calendars bearing Francis’ image.

“The pope is all the rage,” said Rudavites, 36, who normally sells candles for praying at the church.

A customer at a nearby stall, Angie Nalang, said she had brought her 17-year-old autistic son to the religious market surrounding the church because he was desperate for a souvenir.

“He said he wants anything with the pope on it,” Nalang said, as her son picked a white T-shirt adorned with an image of Francis smiling and waving.